The Dalek Downstairs

The Dalek Downstairs

This instalment of the Dalek Game is for Diana Wynne Jones’ The Ogre Downstairs. This was the last of her books which I read, and one of her earliest novels – it has the feel of slightly older British fantasy, with a strong dash of E. Nesbit in the awkwardness of real magic and the particular disasters which unfold, but a great deal of Diana Wynne Jones’ peculiar brand of oddity as well (the tragedy of the sentient toffee bars…) and some typically present and inconvenient parents.

I am ambivalent about strict rules of magic. I don’t like it being too explicable, and I enjoy the freewheeling invention of the magic in (for example) Harry Potter. I think it is better when it is slightly inconsistent. Otherwise it isn’t magic. But I do enjoy the rules of magic working against people – not so much the price of it as the price of not thinking it through. This is one of the few of DWJ’s novels which I remember for concentrating on it. I think Edward Eager may have used it in his novels, Enid Blyton certainly did, C. S. Lewis nodded to it (the trouble with rings and bells in The Magician’s Nephew), J. K. Rowling generally restrains her use of it to the experiments of enthusiastic adult wizards (with the odd flying car or humorous interlude), T. H. White hinted at the difficulties of power in Mistress Masham’s Repose, but E. Nesbit is one of the masters. Her novels are comedies of cumulative magical disasters, whether from actual magic (a magical ring of variable properties in The Enchanted Castle, the wishes granted by the sand-fairy in Five Children and It, an ill-considered application of a fairy godmother’s gift in “Melisande, or Long and Short Division”) or magic found in the everyday (the railway of The Railway Children, the get-rich-quick schemes of The Story of the Treasure Seekers).  They aren’t warnings about magic (it often, indirectly, leads to good things) but they are very vivid illustrations of the necessity of thinking through the consequences of one’s actions!

And I adore how these stories feed into and off each other, often deliberately: the consequences of power of flight or of careless handling of dragon teeth (Five Children and It and The Wouldbegoods) are both echoed in The Ogre Downstairs, the Bastables of The Story of the Treasure Seekers are name-checked in The Magician’s Nephew, which echoes the old story of the sorcerer’s apprentice, and all of them borrow from other, older stories.

In other news: I have posted a Peter Pan illustration. It is very late, but I have finished a set of illustrations and it isn’t yet midnight and the Dalek is up while it is still Wednesday, and I found a cafe for breakfast which didn’t make me bargain for scrambled eggs, and had a delightful lunch in a French bistro with a friend and a lively law-and-literary discussion with another after work over ale and liqueur coffee,  and had an idea which bodes well for the second story in a triptych. So I can’t complain too much, although I have discovered a taste for plain silken tofu, to no-one’s surprise as much as my own.

Illustration Friday: Scary

Illustration Friday: Scary

Pen and ink. The shading is added digitally, but next time I would do it with watercolour – I enjoy the fluidity of it for single-colour work.

I enjoy stories where someone (character or audience) is shrunk to doll-size – whether Diana Wynne Jones’ Magicians of Caprona or Doctor Who’s “Night Terrors”, E. Nesbit’s “The Town in the Library in the Town in the Library”, the opening scenes of Babe or any number of others. They are usually intended to be scary, but I don’t find them so. I enjoy the fantasy – a fascination with small details, the coffee cans full of beads and the plaster ham in Beatrix Potter’s A Tale of Two Bad Mice, the giant Oreo in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. However, the best of them capture that dollshouse disproportion, where the scale of everything is always slightly off. Although it doesn’t scare me I find it beautifully unsettling.

After recently reading some M.R.James and watching Paranormal Activity 3, I am realising it is that gradual discomfort, the perpetual off-kilter sensation that I like best about horror. Sustained eeriness, rather than fright. The eternal unspoken whispering, the phenomenon which hints at but never fully grants an explanation. The serious scary stories which I like best are those which gradually and casually build to some subtle fright, and then never resolve it fully: I like the stories of the characters to be finished, for good or ill, but I do not want all questions to be answered – one reason that I don’t care for strong occult overtones in books I read in order to make myself scared of the sound of the wind. If all ghosts are identified, diagnosed and laid to rest, then that is as bad as ending a fantasy with “it was all a dream”. No, a little wonder and thrilling fear should stay in the world.

In other news: Delia Sherman’s Freedom Maze is loose on the world, and I did the cover and it has Delia’s words inside and Gregory Maguire’s words on top of it, and I am possibly a little excited.

Illustration Friday: Giant

Illustration Friday: Giant

One of my favourite E. Nesbit stories is “Melisande: or Long and Short Division” – a wonderful tale of christening curses, hair, islands, postal services, naval battles and the importance of elementary arithmetic.

This is pen and ink with coloured inks – much messier than colouring on the computer!

Books I did buy in America:

Wicked – Gregory Maguire. Very well written, but I’m not sure what I think about it yet – possibly because it looks like fantasy but is actually ‘literary’ and so reviewing it as fantasy (my genre) is like trying to review Unbreakable as a superhero movie. That’s what it’s about but not what it is.

Countess Below Stairs (a.k.a. The Secret Countess) – Eva Ibbotson. Sigh…. The precedents manager and I are having an Ibbotson bookswap, and what can I say but that these books are pretty much perfect?

Ready or Not – Meg Cabot. Just not as good as “All American Girl”. Which was just *fun*.

Maus – Art Spiegelman. I haven’t read it yet, but I do have the Strand/Art Spiegelman book bag to use once I have. Second hand with dodgy (im)perfect binding.

The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation – Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon. A fascinating and good idea, but more emotive than I have come to expect from illustrated books (from which you can probably tell the sorts of graphic novels I have read). Worth the (second hand) purchase price just for the time line.

My Crowd – Charles Addams. Confession: Before I went to the Museum of Comic Book and Cartoon Art I did not know about Charles Addams – only the Addams Family. But… hehehe. Werewolf in a planetarium. Snrrk. :)

Amphigorey, Amphigorey II and Amphigorey Again – Edward Gorey. If you don’t know Gorey, think of Lemony Snicket as the lovechild of Gorey and Nesbit. At his wierdest, I adore him. Then there are the parts that would be excruciatingly crude, rude or gory if they actually happened on stage or you could work out what the heck *was* happening. For the record, my favourite Gorey is The Doubtful Guest. And no, I don’t know what it is. Possibly a beakless penguin-aardvark in tennis shoes.

Up and Down New York – Tony Sarg. Not a lot has changed.